Law enforcement agents and officers arrest thousands of people each year in the United States based on eyewitness testimonies. Eyewitness testimonies are the accounts of people who have witnessed an event or significant occurrence. The problem is that eyewitness testimonies are not as reliable as they seem. In fact, eyewitness misidentification is consistently one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.
What makes an eyewitness unreliable?
After witnessing a traumatic event, it is normal to feel extreme stress and anxiety. These psychological factors can substantially impact an individual’s reconstructive memory. Reconstructive memory is the process of recalling an event or a story, meaning the person is putting together a narrative from facts they retrieve from their human mind. The human mind is subject to human error, especially under psychological stressors.
It is nearly impossible to remember every detail of an event, and an eyewitness depends on their knowledge of similar circumstances and cultural influences to fill in the missing pieces of the story. The courtroom believes the eyewitness is telling the truth because the eyewitness believes their story is the truth, making them compelling storytellers. Eyewitnesses unintentionally put innocent people behind bars because of bias, prejudice and flawed human memory. Their perception of the truth is subjective.
What are signs that an eyewitness is unreliable?
An eyewitness testimony should come from a competent and credible individual. The eyewitness may not be credible or reliable if their statements are inconsistent, and when they have a reputation for manipulating the truth. It is so important to question the reliability and credibility of an eyewitness, specifically in criminal cases. If an eyewitness mistakes an innocent person for a criminal, that person’s life can completely change, and they can lose everything due to a crime they did not even commit.